When you grow up in a home with an alcoholic, you learn quickly how to stay invisible.
I spent my younger years desperately avoiding my father. Though it was safe while he worked his 9-to-5 job, as soon as he came home, he’d reach for his first whiskey highball and morph from a grumpy, depressed man into a volatile, abusive stranger.
As a child, I knew something was wrong with him, but I wasn’t sure what. He would often sit alone in the evenings playing solitaire. On Sunday mornings, he wouldn’t join us at church but would sleep off a hangover. He’d yell at the TV and punish me severely for shirking chores. I was afraid of him.
When my older sisters went off to college, I faced the full brunt of his disease and depression. He criticized everything about me and the people I befriended. His attacks made me want to disappear. I felt deeply ashamed, only later learning how normal this is for anyone living with an alcoholic.
I tried to tune him out. I looked for parental figures in teachers, friends’ parents, my pastor at church. But it’s nearly impossible to not absorb your parents’ view of you. If they say something’s wrong with you, you assume there is.
I found it difficult to trust others. When I started working, I’d cower in the face of criticism worried I’d be “found out” as a fraud. My feelings of inadequacy infused everything.
It wasn’t until adulthood that I started to disentangle myself from my dad. After a mild nervous breakdown, I went to a therapist and learned about alcoholism. It helped me understand my father’s disease and how it had affected him and, by extension, me.
I started setting limits. I didn’t come home for long visits. I wouldn’t get in the car with him. If he got mad, I walked away. I might have cut off all communication, but I loved my mother, and she was still living with him, despite my attempts to convince her to leave.
Then my father’s drinking escalated. After 42 years of marriage, he angrily divorced my mother, blaming her for his problems. Though it was an outcome I’d always wanted, it took me by surprise. I’d always thought my mother would leave him. Still, their divorce allowed me to spend time less time with my dad. Then something shifted.
In 1990, I met and married my husband. When we had our first child, I began to feel a little empathy for my father. I realized how hard it was to narrow your own ambitions to raise your kids and the conflicts that this caused. This made me think more about my dad’s story and how much he’d given up to raise us.
As a young man, my father taught high school, but quit teaching to work at a more lucrative job to support us. My mother had had multiple miscarriages before conceiving their first child, who died shortly after birth. To have my sisters and me, he’d supported my mom through her grief and perseverance. My father’s own mother was unloving. All of this was hard, and realizing that gave me insight into his struggles.
Still, I thought of him as a sorry person, not someone I really cared for. Then, late one night, he called me unexpectedly.
He was crying, which shocked me. I could tell he’d been drinking, and I wasn’t sure it was wise to talk. But, I listened anyway as he confessed that he’d figured out my mother wasn’t to blame for his depression, and he wanted her back. I suggested he find a therapist. He actually listened.
The therapist helped my father understand his depression and encouraged him to stop drinking. This was not something he wanted to do. He especially didn’t want to go to AA meetings, where people talked about God. But he went anyway and found support, eventually starting to realize the costs of alcoholism on his relationships.
Some months later, he called me at work. I was preparing for a presentation and not really in the mood to talk. But he pushed on, telling me that his therapist had assigned him the task of asking each of his daughters a question.
“So, did you think I loved you as a child?” he asked. I had no idea my sisters had already received their calls and hedged.
“No, Dad, I didn’t,” I said. “Maybe I knew it on some intellectual plane, but I didn’t feel it.”
There were no follow-up questions, and he quickly got off the phone. But this was the beginning of our reconciliation. He needed to hear that truth, and I’d needed to say it.
We began to meet for lunch occasionally at a cafe near my office. We would talk about my work and family, and he slowly learned to ask questions and listen. He kept track of my stories, occasionally delivering a small present for my kids.
He also told me stories about his own life. As a child, he’d never felt love from his parents. He did poorly in school, probably because he couldn’t sit still and concentrate, for which he was often punished. Once, when he was very young, he got hold of some matches and accidentally started a fire at his house. His mother beat him.
As a teen, he might have dropped out of high school except for a teacher who took an interest in him and helped him get good grades. This achievement allowed him a spot in officer’s training after enlisting in the Navy during World War II. He later attended Stanford to earn an MA in History. He also met and married my mother, despite his own mother trying to talk her out of it — a rebuke that stung.
Though this helped me understand my father, the stories concerning moral stands he took most changed my view of him. As a senior in high school, he protested loudly as a Japanese American boy at his school was carted away to a detention center. This injustice deeply affected him, and he went out of his way to make friends with our Japanese American neighbors during my childhood.
Another time, as a high school teacher in California, he’d assigned his students to report on the mistreatment of African Americans in their community. This civics lesson cost him his job, but he felt justified opening up his students’ eyes.
These stories let me see a part of him outside his disease. He wasn’t a good dad, but he made sure we were cared for by working at a job he hated. He didn’t express love, but he’d had no good role models.
When my mother died, my father helped me sort through her things. At her memorial service, he listened to my tribute with moist eyes. Months later, when I still grieved for her, he held me while I cried.
It must have happened then — when he saw my pain at losing my mother — that he decided to make his own death easier for me. He bought a plan that ensured his body would be taken and cremated when his time came. He wrote explicit instructions and made sure his papers were in order.
He once asked me if it would be okay if he had someone besides his three daughters bury him. He didn’t want us crying over his grave. But I told him I needed to give my kids a chance to say goodbye and also to process my own grief. I cried telling him this and saw rare tears in his eyes.
It wasn’t easy to forgive the man who had so bruised me. But as I developed more empathy for him, forgiveness followed. Standing up for myself probably helped. And it was important to hear his stories and appreciate him for who he was, rather than simply focusing on his flaws. Though nothing could erase his past abuse, at least I had gained some perspective — enough to see that he cared.
When my father eventually died, my sisters and I cleaned out his house, and I found a note he’d written a few days earlier. It was a to-do list scrawled on the back of an envelope. It included reminders to take his pills, call his doctor and other mundane activities. At the bottom were the words: “Call Jill. Tell her not to worry.”
Jill Suttie, is a freelance writer and the book review editor for Greater Good Magazine. She writes about the science of altruism, empathy, compassion and forgiveness. She also has recorded two CDs of original songs, which can be found at her website, jillsuttie.com.
A version of this piece was originally published in Greater Good Magazine, published by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. It has been adapted, with permission, for the Inspired Life blog.